Or, Aw hell, let's just shoot him

Are you a religious zealot? A political malcontent? Are you interested in social upheaval, civil war, and doing God's work? Do you own a gun?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, why not try a career in regicide?

Assassinating Stuart kings is the hot industry of 17th century England. Guy Fawkes burst onto the assassination scene in 1605 with his well-publicized attempt to blow up Parliament and James I, and now he has a national holiday named after him. Oliver Cromwell successfully oversaw the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649, and he got to be Lord Protector of all the Commonwealth. Now, in 1683, with Charles II back on the throne and his brother James waiting in the wings, new opportunities in destroying the order of succession are opening up!

Do you have the skills and desire necessary to kill your nation's divinely ordained political and religious leader?

If so, apply to participate in the Rye House Plot today!

Oh, That Old Chestnut

The religious situation in England in 1683 was much as it had been since Henry VIII decided that Catholicism, along with decent food and wine, was better left to the Continent. Protestants and Papists remained locked in a struggle for religious and political supremacy in England, occasionally inviting Ireland and Scotland to add their two cents and as many soldiers as possible to the debate. Since the time of Elizabeth, war--or the threat of war--with Spain and France had Protestant (read Anglican) England in a perpetual panic over whether its monarchs thought communion wafers really became the body of Jesus, or were just a pleasant snack.

The Interregnum temporarily offered a third option: Puritanism, and no king at all. This was fun for absolutely no one; hence, the Restoration.

Much of England was happy to see a Stuart back on the throne in 1660, and Charles II did his Protestant subjects the favor of keeping his Catholic sympathies on the quiet side. The remaining Catholic contingent, however, saw in their new (old) sovereign reason to keep hope alive, and so "Is the Pope a Catholic" as an expression persisted alongside the less popular "Is the king both the supreme political authority in the nation as well as the nominal head of the High Anglican Church?" Naturally this created a significant measure of tension at London block parties and provincial barbeques.

It's All Politics, Man.

Just because you've decided that having a king wasn't really so bad after all doesn't mean you're going to give the until recently Mr. Stuart carte blanche over the exchequer and Church along with his key to the Star Chamber washroom. A clever Parliament would do well to hang on to a few of the powers it had gained over the course of the Civil War, not the least of which was securing Anglicanism as the state religion and making sure the whole contents of the country's coffers didn't go into "I spent the entire Interregnum in exile and all I got was this lousy Papal Indulgence" t-shirts. The Cavalier Parliament let the King spend fairly freely, but every limited edition, autographed Nell Gwynn poster he purchased alienated him from his government a bit more, and his attempt to arbitrarily suspend all punishments of Catholics and other religious dissenters with his Act of Indulgence in 1672 didn't go over at all.

Fortunately for him, he had a friend he could and had been going to in times of need, just a severed-head's throw across the Channel. Louis XIV, King of France, had been slipping Charles II 20,000 pounds a year since 1670; thus Charles was something of an independent power in Protestant England, but in financial thrall to Catholic France.

This made your average Whig MP understandably nervous.

Rubbish! No One's Ever Been Killed in the Name of Religion!

Remarkably, Charles II wasn't the real problem. The pot came to a boil over the question of who would succeed him. Charles II--nice Catholic boy--left no shortage of illegitimate children, but failed to provide Merry Old etc. with a legitimate heir. This made his brother, James, Duke of York, next in line. James made no attempt to subdue his Catholicism, and in fact openly announced his intention to convert in 1670--same year Louis XIV put the royals on the dole.

The growing opposition between Parliament and King led to the Popish Plot of 1678, a fictional Jesuit conspiracy to murder Charles II and replace him with his brother, which was ultimately used by Whigs for political leverage under the leadership of the Earl of Shaftesbury. Several prominent Catholics were shown the door to the afterlife, and the Exclusion Crisis began. Shaftesbury introduced the Exclusion Bill in 1681 in an effort to legally bar James from the order of succession in favor of James, Duke of Monmouth, one of Charles' illegitimate sons.

In response, Charles told Parliament it could go dissolve itself.

That smacked of the Old Absolutism, and with political rumor mongering, backdoor deals, and character assassination all having failed to secure England from endless Hail Mary's and baguettes, a new plot was hatched.

FINALLY. Get to the Good Part!

Yes, that's a lot of backstory for what turned out to be a fairly dismal plot. The Rye House Plot of 1683 is largely unknown because it was such an utter disaster, lacking all the explosiveness of the Gunpowder Plot, the success of the regicide, and the cloak-and-dagger sexiness of the Popish Plot. The significance proceeds mainly from the fact that with Dad no longer staying with Mom even for the sake of his political career, the virulent anti-Franco-Catholics of England saw no reason to separate Charles from their conspiracy theories. The Popish Plot at least made him a potential victim. Now he was part of the problem, and the plotters meant to do away with both him and his brother once and for all. The plot wasn't an attempt to arrest the King and put him on trial for his treacherous and secret alliance with France. It was a planned assassination.

The chosen locale for the royal rub-out was on the grounds of Rye House, a 15th century baronial estate in Hertfordshire owned by disappointed Cromwellian Richard Rumbold. Charles and James' route back to London from the races at Newmarket, to which they went every year, would lead them down a narrow road through the grounds conveniently located within firing range of a high wall. One hundred supporters of Parliament and the Duke of Monmouth were to line the wall and open fire on the royal carriage as it passed by on April Fools' Day. Any bits of the inhabitants left intact after a few volleys were to be reduced by the sword.

What the plan lacked in art it made up for in decisiveness. No poisons, nooses, axes, trials, asps, or raspberry coulis. We're just gonna shoot the bastards, and any misgivings the Duke of Monmouth has about his dad and uncle being whacked in such a nefarious way he can work out with a reassuringly Anglican Archbishop.

The historians amongst you will of course recall something about a Glorious or Bloodless Revolution in 1688--and since there's nothing particularly glorious or at all bloodless about being shot to death at long range by a bunch of people hiding behind a wall, you will rightly suspect that something about the Rye House Plot must have gone awry. Depending on whose side you were on, God or the Devil intervened.

On March 22, a fire broke out in Newmarket that reduced half the town to ashes and the other half to schadenfreudian tittering. Charles and James stayed there to help--and a fat lot of good they did, too, I'm sure--but the races were cancelled and the pair returned to London early. On their way back they enjoyed a refreshingly bullet-free view of the lovely English countryside.

Oh, So THAT'S How It Is, Eh?

The lessons of 1678 did not go unheeded by Charles and James. Turnabout is fair play, so when word of the plot got out, the King and all his Men took the opportunity to scrape a few of their more annoying political enemies off the earth. The purge was adjudicated by George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys, who would later oversee the Bloody Assizes after the collapse of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. Jeffreys saw Algernon Sydney and William, Lord Russell convicted of treason and executed, both Parliament bigw(h)igs who had supported the Bill of Exclusion.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, for whom things had been looking shaky since the Popish Plot failed to adequately spook the king, realized with due haste that he'd have the least desirable view of the scaffold if he didn't get the hell out of Dodge. He skipped to Holland, taking Monmouth with him. Only the latter returned. For result of said return, see paragraph above, re: Jeffreys.

Evidence? Yes, It's All Here, Inside this Pistol Barrel. Please Look Closely, and Hold Still

As you will have no doubt come to suspect, something sounds fishy about this whole plot. No arms were discovered at Rye House, and one can't imagine it would have been terribly difficult to put a man at Newmarket to keep an eye on the King and send word of an early departure. Jeffreys wasn't overly concerned with connecting Sydney, Lord Russell, or Shaftesbury to an actual plot if in fact there ever was one, suggesting that the Tories may simply have concocted the story in order to clean house.

But then, plausible deniability is the fun part of any conspiracy theory, and you can't say Charles wasn't asking for it.

True or not, the Rye House Plot enabled the King to deal the Whigs a tremendous blow and secure the succession of his openly Catholic brother, now better known to history as James II.

Meanwhile, back in Holland, someone was vetting William of Orange and wondering if he wouldn't mind running for King in a few years...

Pensions to:

Macaulay, Lord Thomas. The History of England. London: Penguin Books. 1968.